Cheap Heat: The Open Challenge Has Made Cena Better
By Jacob Fox
Every Monday, following WWE Raw, I post a review of the show on a wrestling forum indicating what I liked and disliked about the show. Although many things vary, usually the one constant is that matches and interviews by John Cena typically are placed in the dislike section. Occasionally a Cena match (never a promo) will find itself in the liked column, but they are few and far between. Yet on May 11, I found myself, for the second week in a row, not only liking Cena’s Raw contribution, but ranking it as the best moment in the show.
It would be easy to ascribe my approval of Cena to his opponents. Both matches were recent NXT wrestlers who were answering Cena’s open challenge for the US Championship. The first was on May. After a surprise appearance by wrestling legend Bret Hart, Cena had a four star match with former NXT Champion Sami Zayn. The May 11th encounter was an equally outstanding confrontation with Adrian Neville. Both of Cena’s challengers are excellent ring performers who rarely put on a bad match.
Still, the caliber of Cena’s opponents have not always been determinant of whether or not his matches are enjoyable. While he has had excellent encounters with the likes of CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, he has also had many dreadful bouts with Randy Orton. Even when some of those matches are good, his Superman comeback at the end generally puts an irritating air of predictability on an otherwise enjoyable contest.
One of the things professional wrestling fans hate more than anything else is predictability.
I haven’t always hated John Cena. But over the course of his 15 world title reigns, there was almost no one I liked less. Whether it was his recap filled promos (which led to my dubbing of him as John “The Narrator” Cena), his less than stellar match performances with the inevitable comeback victory or the simple fact that he effectively insults his critics by embracing them, he has consistently rubbed me the wrong way.
My dislike of Cena has been expressed almost as much as my love for Ric Flair. At Wrestlemania 22, I was proudly one of the people in the crowd who was booing when Cena punched Triple H and immediately cheered when the Game struck back. I have been the recipient of both confused and dirty looks from young kids wondering why I keep slamming their hero.
Before Cena won his first world title, however, I actually found him mildly entertaining. It’s ironic because his character was more annoying than his current one, impossible as it seems. I rolled my eyes every time Cena broke out with one of his silly raps. The only thing worse was how he used to pump up his sneakers before delivering the five knuckle shuffle. His promos were more PG 13 back then, but were still cornier than his G rated ones that we have gotten used to over the last decade. While I cannot say I liked the guy, I definitely did not hate him.
The reason I could stomach Cena’s silly white rapper gimmick was that he was actually a decent brawler. During his first US Championship reign, Cena fought toe to toe with his opponents most of the time. His long feud with Carlito Colon was decent and his street fights with Carlito’s sidekick Aaron Aguilera (wrestling on Smackdown as Jesus) were outstanding. Cena energized the crowds and there were no “Cena Sucks” chants echoing in the arena.
There is very little that Cena’s fans and detractors will agree on. However, anyone who has followed him throughout his run with WWE should recognize that his style has drastically changed after he beat JBL for his first WWE Championship. He became less aggressive and lost his confrontational style of addressing his opponents. Instead he began complimenting his opponents and getting beat down throughout his matches.
This transformation was hardly the first time that a babyface wrestler changed to less aggressive styles during his first world title run. Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels were all proponents of this style of champion in their early reigns. They all eased off. Prior to his first WWF Championship reign, I loved Michaels. But as soon as he changed styles with the belt, I found myself growing to hate him.
When John Cena changed, though, he received a much stronger backlash than the others. There could be several reasons for this. The less aggressive babyface seemed to have died during WWE’s Attitude Era. The two biggest stars of that time period, Steve Austin and the Rock, never fully adopted the comeback pattern. Subsequently, champions such as Brock Lesnar and Kurt Angle remained aggressive during their reigns. There was no reason to believe that John Cena was going to change.
Fans of John Cena have told me that WWE needed a post 9/11 hero and that the day of the antihero was over. Personally, I have found that reasoning to be completely nonsensical. The tragedy of September 11, 2001 did not reasonably have any effect on the popularity of the antihero. Neither the Rock nor Austin changed their styles and their popularity never waned. Eddie Guerrero, one of the most popular and beloved wrestlers during this time period thrived off his philosophy of lying, cheating and stealing. While Cena was rising in popularity due to his clean cut persona, Randy Orton was achieving comparable notoriety playing the exact opposite. In short, antiheroes were as popular post 9/11 as they were beforehand.
Having won 15 world championships, it seemed there might not have been many big stories left for Cena to tell. While it is possible he may eventually tie or even surpass Ric Flair‘s recognized 16 title reigns, that does not seem likely to happen soon. Giving Cena the United States title seemed like a good way to keep him in the spotlight preforming the same character over and over without crossing the Flair threshold.
Then, completely in character, Cena began his US Championship open challenge. I have to admit my initial reaction was to believing that this was a way for Cena to bury more up and coming talent. I have always seen the US Championship, like the Intercontinental Championship, to be a developmental belt. Its purpose has traditionally been to prepare a mid card wrestler for an upper card run. With the nearly unbeatable John Cena holding this belt, the open challenge seemed like a bad idea.
So far, I’ve been wrong. The Cena of the Open Challenge is not the Cena of the WWE Championship. Yes, he acts the same. Yes, he wrestles mostly the same. But the matches have been different. The matches have been better. And the reason why the matches have been better is that the possibility of Cena losing actually seems plausible.
As I spent more time thinking about, I realized that the reason Cena losing in one of the challenges seems probable is that it has to happen. It not only has to happen, but it has to happen during an open challenge.
Cena won’t be remembered in history as the US Champion. He’ll be the WWE Champion. He’s not going to lose the US Championship to Randy Orton or Brock Lesnar, or any long established talent. Those outcomes would be silly. The US Championship will go to someone who will pin Cena in an open challenge, take the belt and have been put over in a way that will catapult him up the roster. The belt will go to someone who needs it and they will also have a bragging right like very few wrestlers have. That is why the matches have been interesting.
In closing, I have to take time to insure that no one assumes that I have become a fan of John Cena. That is not ever going to happen. However, I can always place my feelings aside to give credit where credit is due. The open challenge has been great and it has been enjoyable. It would not be, though, if John Cena was not the champion who was issuing it.
— Jacob Fox